President Obama, in his first speech after the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, quoted from Martin Luther King’s 1963 eulogy for the four African-American girls who were killed in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Five years after the Birmingham church bombing, King himself met a savage death.
In the days after King’s assassination, Americans considered many of the same questions that we are asking today: Was this the work of one lunatic, or of a larger racial ideology? How should lawmakers respond? Would the violent tragedy lead to gun control legislation? White Southerners even debated whether to lower the flag in King’s honor. In the end, many ministers and leaders cautioned that King would have died in vain if the country did not act boldly to root out racial injustice. The fact that we are having similar conversations, almost 50 years later, seems a mark of our collective failure.
As word of King’s assassination traveled around the country on the night of April 4, 1968, two of America’s leading journalists sat down at their typewriters: Mike Royko in Chicago and Ralph McGill in Atlanta. They reached the same conclusion – that an entire society had murdered King, regardless of which individual pulled the trigger.
At that point, the assassin remained at large and his identity was unknown. There were no social media profiles to parse, no manifestoes to read. That kind of information was unnecessary. Both McGill and Royko knew that a sick and racist nation was to blame.
In the spring of 1968, King was far from a sanitized national hero. Many white Americans detested his activism and begrudged his fame. In 1967, King had delivered a forceful speech opposing the Vietnam War. Other civil rights leaders turned against him, and he faced a round of criticism in the nation’s newspapers and magazines. His relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, already frayed, fractured completely. King then announced plans for the Poor People’s Campaign, in which droves of the nation’s poor would set up tent encampments on the Washington Mall in a show of nonviolent civil disobedience. King was attacking capitalism and imperialism, and calling for a “revolution of values.”
In early 1968, he traveled to Memphis, where 1,300 black sanitation workers were waging a strike. King led a protest march through downtown Memphis on March 28. Some demonstrators behind him resorted to violence; as chaos took hold, King was whisked away from the scene. The national press intensified its criticism of King. On Capitol Hill, elected officials denounced him as a lawless radical. He had become the target of deepening hatred.
To Mike Royko, a popular columnist for the Chicago Daily News, it was this scorn and revulsion that ultimately killed King. Royko published a column on April 5 titled “Millions in His Firing Squad.” Royko expressed confidence that the authorities would soon arrest the assassin.
But “they can’t catch everybody,” Royko wrote, “and Martin Luther King was executed by a firing squad that numbered in the millions.” From many corners of the nation, white Americans fed “words of hate into the ear of the assassin.” The killer was simply following orders. “The man with the gun did what he was told. Millions of bigots, subtle and obvious, put it in his hand and assured him he was doing the right thing.”
Royko blamed white Northerners: the anti-busing leaders, the law-and-order demagogues, all of those Chicago residents who stood against King’s open-housing programs and pelted him with rocks in Marquette Park. He also indicted the FBI for its propaganda campaign against King, and proceeded to condemn every white American who nodded at racist jokes.
“It was almost ludicrous,” Royko wrote of the hostility directed at King. “The man came on the American scene preaching nonviolence … He preached it in the North and was hit with rocks. He talked it the day he was murdered.” But Americans refused to hear his calls for peace and freedom. “Hypocrites all over this country would kneel every Sunday morning and mouth messages to Jesus Christ. Then they would come out and tell each other, after reading the papers, that somebody should string up King, who was living Christianity like few Americans ever have.” In a legendary career, this was one of Royko’s finest moments – and one of his angriest.
Ralph McGill targeted the Southern bigots. McGill, the publisher of the Atlanta Constitution and a leading Southern liberal, chose a title for his editorial that was sure to aggravate the haters: “A Free Man Killed by White Slaves.” He wrote, “White slaves killed Martin Luther King in Memphis. At the moment the triggerman fired, Martin Luther King was the free man. The white killer, (or killers), was a slave to fear.”
In McGill’s formulation, millions of white Americans stood captive to racial fear. McGill located many such “slaves” in Memphis, which was “bound by such terrible chains” of enmity. Hatred at the sanitation workers, and at King himself, had swirled around the Delta city. McGill beseeched white Americans to strike at racial prejudice and injustice. “The white South – the white population in all the country – must now give answer.”
To two of the nation’s most perceptive observers, the important issue was not the assassin’s mental state. The crucial fact was that a climate existed in the country that sanctioned racial hatred.
Of course, others rejected this logic. The Chicago Tribune bristled at Mike Royko’s indictment. “The murder of Dr. King was a crime and the sin of an individual,” the Tribune’s editors asserted on April 9 – the morning of King’s funeral. The “rest of us” were “not contributory to this particular crime.” The Memphis Commercial Appeal also dismissed the notion of collective guilt. “It was the work of an individual, a warped, mixed-up, emotional mind,” the Commercial Appeal editorialized on April 6. In reality, the Commercial Appeal itself had helped to whip white Memphis into a feverish state. The newspaper had criticized the sanitation strike for the better part of two months, and deplored King’s decision to assist the strikers. The newspaper’s “Hambone” cartoon – which had appeared six days a week since the 1910s – continued to trade in crass racial stereotypes. In 1968, the Commercial Appeal focused on one person’s “warped, mixed-up, emotional mind” instead of the racism and racial inequality that so shaped the city and the nation.
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Then as now, it was easier to blame a deranged individual than to craft a response that might address racial inequality or gun violence. Hours before King’s death, the Senate Judiciary Committee finally voted on a gun-control bill that had been pending before it for three years. The bill was initially proposed by Sen. Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, and supported by Lyndon Johnson. James Eastland, the longtime segregationist from Mississippi, chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee defeated a proposal to ban interstate gun sales. The committee then considered a proposal to combine gun control legislation with a safe streets bill. It failed to approve this measure, then adjourned for the evening. An hour later, James Earl Ray aimed his rifle at the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and murdered Martin Luther King Jr.
On Saturday, April 6, the committee met again. This time, it voted 9-to-7 to attach the gun control regulations to the safe streets bill. But to achieve even this tiny advance, the supporters of gun control agreed to exempt rifles and shotguns. That same day, members of the National Rifle Association descended upon Boston’s Sheraton Hotel for the organization’s annual meeting. They would rally against the pending legislation.
The Senate began to debate the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. This law would prohibit felons from buying guns, ban all mail-order gun sales, and impose restrictions on certain out-of-state transactions. The Senate passed the bill on May 24. The House did not act until after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. One day after Kennedy’s death, on June 6, 1968, the House approved the bill. Months later, Congress passed a more expansive law called the Gun Control Act of 1968. It established a licensing system for gun purchases, mandated serial numbers on weapons, and expanded many of the previous bill’s measures. This was the apogee in the history of American gun control legislation. It was eventually undone in 1986, by the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act.
Palm Sunday fell on April 7, 1968, three days after King’s assassination. Millions of Americans gathered in churches to mourn the slain leader. Tributes to King rang out in black houses of worship, among white congregations, and at public gatherings that drew interracial crowds. The nation pressed together to grieve for the prophet of nonviolence. Many religious leaders offered the same message: that for King’s death to have a lasting impact, the nation needed to commit itself to racial justice in deed as well as in word. At New York City’s Church of the Holy Family, Monsignor Timothy Flynn declared that King’s death “will be redemptive if it stirs the white community to an adequate healing social action.” Rabbi Mark Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee agreed. “It will be a great desecration of his holy name if the Congress of the United States and the citizens of this nation do not respond … by providing the elementary decencies for which he sacrificed his life: jobs, housing, education, health.” The Urban League’s Whitney Young, a civil rights leader known for moderation, declared: “We must have concrete, tangible action that will remove the inequities in our society.” If the nation could see its way toward such substantive action, if it could begin to remove those inequities, then King “may have achieved in death something he was never quite able to do in actual life.”
American leaders never did remove such racial inequalities. Instead, the “white backlash” intensified as the “silent majority” lifted Richard Nixon to the presidency. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was in effect the last civil rights bill. And the safe streets bill, its robust gun control regulations notwithstanding, would give rise to the era of mass incarceration.
In the days after King’s death, Southern leaders debated whether to lower the American flag – and Southern state flags – in King’s honor. A dramatic standoff occurred at the Georgia Statehouse in Atlanta, King’s native city. Ben Fortson, Georgia’s secretary of state, had lowered both the American and state flags to half-staff immediately after King’s assassination. Georgia’s flag was essentially the Confederate flag, alongside a small image of the state seal. (Georgia had added the stars-and-bars to its flag in 1956.) The governor at the time was Lester Maddox, a segregationist icon. On April 8, 1968, Maddox called Fortson to register his objections about the lowering of the flags. King’s funeral service would begin the next morning; thousands of mourners had flocked to the city. On April 9, Maddox surrounded the Statehouse with 160 state troopers in riot gear as well as 20 armed wildlife rangers. Maddox then marched over to the flagpole and began to raise both of the flags. He suddenly realized that television cameras from CBS, NBC and ABC were tracking his every move. Maddox ultimately left the flags where they were and retreated into his office. He later explained, “I didn’t think we oughta use our flag to honor an enemy of our country.” The symbolism was hard to miss: the Confederate flag remained at half-staff, in King’s honor. In 2001, Georgia adopted a new state flag – the result of Gov. Roy Barnes’ efforts.
After 14 more years, and the slaughter of nine African-Americans, South Carolina may finally retire that symbol of racial hatred. Still, our nation is dotted with many more shrines to the Confederacy. Hundreds of towns have monuments to slaveholders; some public schools are named after Confederate leaders. Perhaps those symbols will be the next to fall.
Maybe this awful moment can nudge us toward necessary reforms. We comfort ourselves with the notion that the gunman was insane, when it is obvious that he was acting out – in extreme form – the ugliest truth of our time: that our society places little value on black life. If Ralph McGill and Mike Royko were still with us, they would not busy themselves with the assassin’s Internet posts. They would not look at him; they would look at us. They would scrutinize our society, at what we have built and what we have condoned. In this painful hour, we might realize that we don’t have to keep living this way. We can harness the sadness, the outrage and the feeling of unity, and use that energy to force our leaders into action – urging them to pursue policies that will make it harder for people to kill one another, and to honor the dead by creating a more peaceful and just society for the living.